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Johnson: Tea party could block new farm bill

Fiscally conservative tea party members in the U.S. House could sink the farm bill passed last week by a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Tim Johnson said Wednesday.

Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson

Fiscally conservative tea party members in the U.S. House could sink the farm bill passed last week by a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Tim Johnson said Wednesday.

"The farm bill passed by a big bipartisan majority in the Senate. It's up to the House now to get it done," Johnson, D-S.D., told reporters in a conference call. "We'll see if that's possible or not."

The Senate passed its version of a new farm bill last week on Thursday with a 64-35 vote. Critics complained that spending will increase under the half-a-trillion bill, while defenders of the bill note that about 80 percent of farm bill spending now pays for food stamps after enrollment in that program more than doubled during the financial crisis.

The new bill would save about $23 billion in farm subsidies by overhauling programs and relying largely on crop insurance rather than direct payments, supporters say.

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30 but could be extended.

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Southern farmers who grow cotton and rice have objected to the switch to crop insurance, and the House has been more sympathetic to their cause. But Johnson said he believes it is "philosophical differences" over government subsidies that could derail the farm bill.

"The tea party, especially, doesn't like subsidies," Johnson said. "The House ought to take up the Senate bill and pass it right away and ignore a conference committee -- just do the Senate bill. I don't think that's likely, but there's an urgency on the farm bill."

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., voted for the farm bill and said last week he is worried that it faces a veto from President Obama if food stamp spending is cut too deeply.

On other issues:

n Johnson also said he's worried that tea party members in the House threaten the proposed extension of the production tax credit for wind energy.

The tax credit is viewed as crucial to maintaining the growing industry. Last month, President Obama campaigned at a plant that makes wind turbine blades in Iowa, calling for extension of the tax credit.

"So many bipartisan people favor the wind energy bill that I hope it gets done," Johnson said. "The controversy is related to subsidies. There are those, especially in the House, who see the wind energy bill as a subsidy and oppose subsidies from the get-go. ... They ignore the oil and gas subsidies that have existed for years and years."

Johnson said he expects any action on extending the tax credit to come during Congress' lame duck session after the November election and possibly not until 2013.

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n The senator said he expects agreement on a transportation bill soon. As a member of the conference committee hammering out differences between the House and Senate versions of that bill, Johnson described "tough negotiations" but said he expects a "positive outcome."

The bill would both create jobs and improve the nation's transportation infrastructure, he said.

"This supports nearly 3 million jobs across nation. This is a jobs bill when our nation still needs to put people to work," Johnson said. "Our nation's infrastructure is crumbling.

"This bill invests in our nation's roads, bridges and highways. South Dakota has over 1,200 bridges that are structurally deficient out of 6,000. We need to get busy fixing them."

The bill would cover just two years, rather than the more traditional five or more years. The existing transportation bill has been extended 10 times, Johnson said, as policymakers grapple with how to fund spending as the highway fund does not keep up with needs.

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